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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

After Dark, January 17, 2012

The Touchy (Feely) Business of Theatre
A recent story makes one question the dynamics of theatre creation
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

A story in the news, here in Montreal, has a lawsuit being initiated against a teacher (of theatre, among other courses) by an ex-student. Sex is involved. Most of the accusations are fairly unpleasant but it boils down to this: a person well-known in local theatre is accused of misusing his authority for purposes of attaining sex.
The fact is that it taught all the students in the school that actors screwing around with their mentors/directors/authority figures was part of the ethos of theatre.

I am not going to go one step more into this story, except to say it got me to thinking and talking. I discussed it with Estelle Rosen, CharPo's Editor-in-chief, before and after we discussed it on last week's podcast This Is The CPC. The story inspires, and should inspire, a consideration of the dynamics of both theatre instruction and theatre itself.

I went to acting school. I know of at least three relationships between theatre coaches and students while I was there. (One exploded with hysterically funny consequences backstage during a performance...but I digress.) The teachers were one of two things: completely without scruples or performing a dangerous balancing act between favouritism and doing their jobs correctly. (I suppose it might have been somewhere between the two.) The fact is that it taught all the students in the school that actors screwing around with their mentors/directors/authority figures was part of the ethos of theatre.

But there is that one thing: authority.

I relearned this lesson when I taught theatre myself when suddenly the dilemma of those three teachers became clear to me: young actors have a libido which is in overdrive and a desperate need for approval. They can, and do, take aim at teachers as love (sex) objects. They teachers do or don't accept this and dive, dive, dive. (I didn't, in passing.) There are hundreds of reasons why they do or don't but let me remind readers of two things: teachers are human (and so also have a certain need for approval...and libidos) and in many cases the age difference between teacher and student is not great. (I was teaching "kids" who were four or five years younger.)

But there is that one thing: authority.

It goes beyond libidos. It is THE dangerous territory: it is why there are directors and teachers and conductors and (dare I say it?) critics. Authority tips the scales. It is weight we can use to guide or crush. It is also weight we can use to bargain for favours which should never be perks of the job. Authority used unwisely cheapens the professions, used well it elevates. 

So we have to have the discussion. What is appropriate?

Like it or not authority has shaped and continues to shape our art. Yes there are the productions where the director is just another artist in an ensemble of creators. (Hold-hands-sing-We-Are-The-World-and-sway.) But the word is right there in the program: Director (not: Pal Of The Actors). Moreover, we want it to be in the program; how many times has someone said or written that a show needed a director?

So we have to have the discussion. What is appropriate? Yes, we're all adults and God knows dabbling in these questions smacks of Big Brother. But I wonder if we can start with the schools. It has nothing to do with rules (as teachers/students in heat don't care about those anyway) - but a general discussion of what is right or wrong. This is not black and white. Theatre makes it a great, gray, perilous sea.

I remember, when I was in school, one of our teachers/directors, the great Jean Gascon, reminded us that theatre is about sex. Always. But for all the boffing on and off stages, we don't discuss the right and wrong of it very often; especially not when it mixes with the idea of authority.

We should.

1 comment:

  1. I have an inside perspective on this story, as someone who's co-taught theatre in that particular CEGEP, and has observed the dealing of this particular teacher with regards to his students.

    One thing strikes me about the story in relation to this entry. You posit the teacher in question as a member of the local Theatre community. I have never seen this man outside of the walls of that building, where he definitely parades as Professor Big Fish in a small pond with an air of arrogance that's a key trait of his personal mythology. Googling his name shows no actual theatre credits in Montreal in the first 10 pages. I admit that my circle is limited, but despite the fact that I've worked in his field, in his department, I've never even seen him in an audience, much less contributing to a show. At the CEGEP, over 4 years, he's come to see a school production twice, and on both occasions, we've had to coax the actors onto the stage, so terrified were they of how he'd treat them after the show. The man is a bully.

    I think it's important not to tack abuse of power onto the theatre world as though it were a problem unique to this industry. Note that the student who was abused was an english literature student, and not a theatre student, and perhaps not even ever subject to the abuse this teacher passes off as pedagogy.

    As an educator, an artist who uses young and student actors wherever I can, as well as the once teenaged lover to significantly older folk, this story makes me angry in a variety of ways, but the most vital one for me is the breaking of the campsite rule. When we're dealing with youth, whether as teachers, lovers, directors, employers, they are, like the wilderness, fragile, intense, and vulnerable. We have an obligation to leave them in better shape than we found them. They trust us not perpetuate, but to help find an end to the abuse they disclose when they come to us in confidence.


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